by Alan Kessler
I was asked to review this book and given a free Kindle copy in order to do so; I wish I hadn’t been. Because if this hadn’t been part of an agreement, I never would have finished this book.
This is not a good book. (If it is too presumptuous of me to actually pass judgment, then it is my opinion that this is not a good book.) The plotline makes no sense. It is purported to be a sprawling epic, and I suppose in that it covers about forty or fifty years and a dozen individual lives, it is. The problem is that there is no reason to connect all of those lives. You start with the title character, Clarence; he has a high school chum named Todd; Todd grows up to work for a man named Walters. So why do we need to hear about Walters? Or Walters’s son, Donald? Walters and Donald are certainly connected to Todd, but they are not in any way associated with Clarence – and the book is called Clarence Olgibee, not Todd Munson. Or perhaps this book is an examination of racism: then why do we spend a full third of the book watching Clarence duck his mother and try to get laid? What has that to do with racism? It seems to me that the author could not decide what his story was really about, and so he included everything that he thought of in relation to it, background material, character development, everything.
Don’t get me wrong: some of it is interesting. The part when Clarence is in the Navy was quite well done, overall, particularly the chapters in the Philippines. The author has a way with description, and also with dialogue, particularly hate speech, which enables him to create some very distasteful villains – and yeah, it was fun to see some of them get their comeuppance. But much of that is ruined by one simple fact: I can’t stand Clarence. He’s a jerk: he uses everyone around him, resents everyone, envies everyone, and complains constantly that he can’t do what he wants – when what he wants to do is nothing. As he gets older, it makes more sense, as people actually treat him badly; but for the first half of the book, when Clarence is a teenager and his only problem is that his mother wants him to do his chores and homework, and the girl he’s lusting after is a shallow, dim-witted bimbo, it’s hard to feel sympathetic as Clarence lies and cheats and manipulates the good people around him – both of his parents (because I agree with his mother) along with his friends Willard and Todd – simply because Clarence’s only influence is a cousin that crashed at his house for a few months. Now maybe that would happen, a teenager deciding to admire Cousin Ortis instead of his mother or father or friends or anyone else; but it’s hard to like him for it.
What drives me crazy, though, is the fact that the author uses this. The story is of Clarence’s redemption. He decides, at a very few times in his otherwise worthless life, to do the right thing; and when he does, it is – well, nice. I appreciated it. I thought, “Good for you, Clarence.” And then I watched him go right back into being a putz. At least when Huck Finn realizes he cares more about Jim than about his reputation, he goes about trying to free Jim. He learns his lesson. What’s the point of a redemption that doesn’t actually redeem the person? And again, if the point was that Clarence was broken by his ill-treatment in a racist society, why is the first half of the book about the villains Doing Your Chores and She Doesn’t Want To Have Sex With You? Any chance of redemption was shot for me in Clarence’s last scene with his parents. I just had to hate him after that. Because I really liked his dad. You putz.
I wasn’t going to give this book that low a rating, because I do definitely see some good things, and I think the author has potential. He needs to work on telling one story that makes sense; this book should either be about racism, or about Clarence. He also needs to work on editing: because I can overlook a lot of things, but the main character’s name is spelled at least four different ways in this book, and that’s just ridiculous. The first chapter comes back around at the end of the book, yes, but only because the first chapter is an entirely artificial situation: the protagonist at that point, Jimmy, has literally no reason to commit the crime that he does. So it’s not a mind-bending use of irony, it’s a stretch, it’s a moment that strains the reader’s suspension of disbelief. And when the ending comes back around to that beginning point, the book should end. I hit that point and my Kindle said 94%. And everything that happens after that, I found just ridiculous and maddening, in the way it completely changed the narrative and asked me to go places I neither expected nor wanted to go, and tried to redeem Clarence when it was much too late to do that. That guy, and this book, were already lost.